The Final Piece

Courtesy of UCI Athletics

One piece: that can be the difference between finishing a puzzle and leaving a glaring hole in it. It can be the difference between winning a championship and falling inches short. For every volleyball team that David Kniffin has been a part of, he has been that final puzzle piece.

Growing up in northern California, Kniffin watched his parents play volleyball in a recreational league and would occasionally sneak onto the team. His love and appreciation for the sport started in the seventh grade when he had to do a report on physical activities and hobbies. After seeing classmates choose football, basketball and soccer, Kniffin was forced to settle with volleyball. The report led him to an interview with Jim Brenton, the head coach for the women’s volleyball team at Chico State. At the end of the interview, Brenton invited Kniffin to participate in a summer volleyball camp. Kniffin agreed but unbeknownst to him, it was an all-girls camp.

“I was hooked for life,” Kniffin said. “It was 170 girls and me. I was pretty confident this was going to be my sport.”

After being introduced to some of the men on Chico State’s club volleyball team, Kniffin began taking the game more seriously. No longer was he playing with adults who played the game as recreation — Kniffin was now playing grass volleyball with college athletes.

Kniffin entered high school looking for another opportunity to play volleyball, and when he saw a flyer that read, “Volleyball Tryouts,” he was going to take advantage of it. But what the flyer failed to specify was that the tryouts were for the girls’ team. Kniffin was sent to the vice principal’s office for making a mockery of the event. Despite the misunderstanding, Kniffin, a couple of his friends and their parents were inspired  to start a boys’ volleyball team at Chico High School.

“We told [the school board] that we were looking for an opportunity to play,” Kniffin said. “We talked about how the sport would benefit certain communities that didn’t have the opportunity to play and would service kids by getting them to play an organized sport.”

The school board approved the petition and by his junior year, Kniffin and the rest of the boys’ volleyball team played 24 games and went undefeated. Kniffin took his volleyball skill set to Loyola Marymount University, where he played alongside Reid Priddy, an Olympic gold medalist. Here he was coached by Rick McLaughlin, the current head coach for the UC Santa Barbara men’s volleyball team.

As a freshman, Kniffin learned the game from the sideline and watched the Lions take down the No. 1 team in the playoffs. But Kniffin’s collegiate volleyball dream was short lived because in the summer of 2000, LMU dropped the men’s volleyball program.

“My first reaction was ‘What’s next?’ because I didn’t see anything that would change it,” Kniffin said. “I was in a position as a sophomore in high school to petition a school board and add a program, but this seemed out of the scope.”

Kniffin weighed his options and discovered that he would take the community college route before transferring to another division-I school. He landed at Los Angeles Pierce College and led an undefeated team to the state championship.

After one year at Pierce, Kniffin transferred yet again, this time to UC Irvine.

Kniffin spent two years at UCI before playing professionally in Europe. Under the tutelage of John Speraw, Kniffin and the rest of the men’s volleyball team saw their best performances in school history. During his senior season, Kniffin, who played setter, set the school record for most assists (1,632) in a season. More importantly, Kniffin led his team to the program’s first-ever No. 1 ranking and first-ever Mountain Pacific Sports Federation postseason tournament victory.

“I think I just walked into the right situation at the right time,” Kniffin said.

After UCI, Kniffin found a similar situation playing professionally overseas. While in Spain, Kniffin helped his team win the division championship, but after two years abroad, a phone call from Speraw brought him back to Orange County.

After laying the foundation as a player, Kniffin returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach. But the men’s volleyball team had not won a playoff game since Kniffin’s departure and it was his job to help get the team over the hump. After falling short in the 2006 Final Four, UC Irvine brought home the hardware in 2007 and again in 2009.

“I felt I was walking in, needing to contribute and put the last piece in,” Kniffin said. “They were a motivated group; it was just making a few refinements on my end.”

The biggest impact Kniffin has had on UCI has come as an assistant coach. He has not only been a part of two national championships, but also helped create the International Volleyball Tournament. While Speraw focuses on the mental side of the game, it is Kniffin who focuses on the nontechnical components and makes sure players are enjoying the game. He has also had a lasting impact on players like Ryan Ammerman, who was named MVP after UCI won its second title, and Anthony Spittle, who led UCI to the semifinals in this year’s MPSF tournament. Both have assumed the starting setter spot at UCI that Kniffin once held.

After leading the Anteaters to their first-ever No.1 ranking and MPSF tournament as a player and claiming two national titles as an assistant coach, David Kniffin will now move on to the University of Illinois, where he will be an assistant coach for the women’s team.

“I think I am walking into a situation where they need significant but, relatively speaking, minor tweaks,” Kniffin said.

Kniffin’s challenge will be taking the Illinois women’s volleyball team and turning them into a contender that can compete with powerhouses of women’s volleyball, which include the University of Texas, the University of Nebraska and the University of Southern California. Illinois is on the cusp as they reached the Sweet Sixteen this past season before falling to the Longhorns.

“They want a critical outside-the-box thinker to come in and help them get over the hump. They don’t have the top athletes that Penn State, Nebraska or Texas have,” Kniffin said.  “It is a similar situation as 2009: how do you take a system volleyball team, comprised of athletes who are guy-for-guy lesser than those of USC? How do you take those players and beat out those juggernauts? I think you do that with system volleyball and being more progressive with your training.”

When David Kniffin starts his new job at the University of Illinois later this month, he will once again be looking to put in the final piece to the puzzle.